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Parents and Secrets and Guilt, Oh My!

Guilt, for the child of an aging parent, can control their thinking and actions, and it is a battle one must fight every day. Guilt will keep us from being fully with and for our parents in the way we can be.

by Chris Fabry

When Dorothy went on her quest for the Wizard of Oz (her ultimate destination being home), she was frightened by the prospect of lions and tigers and bears. Reflecting on Dorothy’s dismay, we are reminded that fear can easily sidetrack or paralyze us, especially when dealing with an aging parent.

In my novel, Under a Cloudless Sky, Frances is concerned that her mother, Ruby, is going to kill someone while driving between her house and the grocery store. She’s already taken out a mailbox or two.

Frances wants to protect her mother but a secret stands between them. When Frances takes the keys to Ruby’s car, Ruby leaves town, propelled by a secret she’s buried most of her life. (This is part of the novel’s mystery that the reader will discover.) Assailed by guilt, Frances’s heart holds her back from truly loving her mother.

Many adult children are overwhelmed with guilt. Much like a parent who looks back and laments mistakes and blames themselves for a child’s choices, adult children can stew and struggle about mom or dad.

I see this in my relationship with my own mother, who will turn ninety-one in February. I was the last hatchling to fly, and I traveled far from the nest. Then, with a full nest of our own (my wife and I have nine children), our family went through a devastating loss and fled to the desert. I am now two thousand miles away from my mother and unable to help with transitions, appointments, and care I would love to give. This produces a sense of guilt. Even though my brother and sister-in-law provide excellent help, I still hear the voice saying, You’ve let your mother down. You’re not there. You should be.

My mother, like Ruby in the novel, lives in a home where she has resided for decades. She has let us know she is not leaving. Period. End of discussion.

Suanne Camfield addresses this mindset of my mother in her book The Sound of a Million Dreams, interacting with why staying in one’s home is so important. A friend dealing with similar family concerns wanted to bring her father to live with her, and she received wise advice from an older doctor: “There are three things every soul needs to survive: to be known, to have purpose, and to be remembered.” The doctor contended that relocating a parent threatens all three.

Guilt, for the child of an aging parent, can control their thinking and actions, and it is a battle one must fight every day. Guilt will keep us from being fully with and for our parents in the way we can be. That’s why I’ve found it helpful when feeling any kind of guilt to focus not on what I can’t do, but on what I can.

For example, I can’t be physically present with my mother the way I would like. I can let that produce guilt or I can focus on what I can do, which is to call her and talk on the phone. (I would do this online, but she has resisted the encroaching technology, which may be a blessing in disguise. We can’t Skype, but I don’t have to worry about her being scammed by an e-mail from a Nigerian Prince.) I call and listen to her stories and encourage her and make her laugh. I listen to the same stories each week. I resist the urge to let guilt keep me further from her. I focus on what I can do and not what I can’t. (And I also don’t focus on what neighbors might think, what other family members might think, or even what you might think as you read this. No one outside knows the reality of our history and our present.)

The question in all of this is how to love well. How do I love my mother, with all of her faults and struggles in life, in a way that honors her and values her for the person she is right now? If I act out of guilt, I’m thinking more of myself than I am of her.

The title of my novel comes from an old hymn I learned as a child, “Dwelling in Beulah Land.” The third verse shows what this “dwelling” means.

“Safe am I within the castle of God’s Word retreating.”

Dwelling in Beulah Land is about staying connected to God, as a branch to the vine. As we do this, we’ll be able to discern how to love, how to give, how to listen and encourage, and how to hear a voice that is not ridden by guilt.

Under a Cloudless Sky by Chris Fabry

A charming and engrossing novel for fans of Southern fiction and the recent hit memoir Hillbilly Elegy about a lush and storied coal-mining town—and the good people who live there—in danger of being destroyed for the sake of profit. Will the truth about the town’s past be its final undoing or its saving grace?

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